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Sep 3, 2015

Juicing Prickly Pears and Making Jelly

Did you know that there is an ideal jelly to make peanut butter & jelly sandwiches? There is. The flavors are perfect together. There’s nothing like a peanut butter and prickly pear jelly sandwich. It’s phenomenal. Seriously!

We love our Prickly Pear jelly, syrup, and juice at our house, but we were down to the very last 1/2 pint jar of syrup and then that was it. Now that we’ve moved to Winslow we don’t have ample access to prickly pear anymore and I was afraid my trip to Southern New Mexico would be too late. Life just wasn’t going to be the same this winter without prickly pear syrup on our pancakes though, so I called home to my parents and we worked out a plan.

Bountiful Baskets in their area was offering a 12lb box of red prickly pear fruit that week. I put in an order, but I wasn’t really sure that 12lbs would be enough. So they went up to the family ranch in the mountains and picked me a bucketful. Now, when I saw a bucketful I really should saw a Bucket Full. This was a 5 gallon bucket packed to the gills, along with a 1/2 gallon bag that wouldn’t fit. They called and asked if one bucket was enough. We thought it might be, but if not we could go pick more. I didn’t realize how packed they got that bucket though. We definitely didn’t need more!

 

They put the whole bucket in their freezer to keep these perfectly ripe fruit all ready for me. It took forever to thaw those out, but they sure were pretty!

But then it came time to juice these babies. We’ve used electric and commercial juicers before, but they gave a watered down juice, and we like ours to be nice and concentrated. Cameron read different techniques and ideas online and we’ve come up with our own method to get the juice as concentrated as we like it without having to spend hours boiling off water and ending up with minimal juice.

Once I finally got the prickly pears thawed enough, I put some in the big pot and added about 2-3 inches of water. I figured out later in the day that smaller batches worked better than big batches, but by then I was on a roll and didn’t take more pictures…so these are pictures of the first big batch. I steamed these until they were completely soft and mash-able.

Next comes the straining, mashing, and more straining. We tried using cheesecloth at first but it let through more fibers than we wanted in our juice, so we use a clean pillowcase (of course I had to use an orange one). After washing and sanitizing a five gallon bucket, we put the pillow case in and slip the edge over the lip of the bucket to hold it on. Well, that’s what I did. When there are two of us at home I can help hold the bag while Cameron pours or vice-versa but I was all alone this day and this is the method I came up with to do this flying solo.

Once the pillow case is in place I pour off the juice in the bottom of the pot, trying to not pour off any of the fruit or pulp. Once the juice is out of the way it is really easy to mash the fruit. We just use a potato masher.

You want these as mashed as you can get them. The skins won’t mash down too much, but the insides should be pretty much pulp.

From there carefully (this is very hot prickly pear pulp!!) pour the prickly pear pulp into the pillow cased bucket.

Mmmm, doesn’t that look appetizing.

Now it’s time to squeeze. Again, I realized I couldn’t do this like we normally do. With two of us one can hold the bag while the other twists and squeezes. With only two hands, I couldn’t really do that, and you do need both hands to squeeze the juice out.

So if you’re flying solo on this, here’s how I figured this out. I went and found a good sturdy broom and tied the bag to the top. This was a little tricky to do without splattering all over the place, but I finally got it. I put the bucket up on a little chair (regular dining room chairs were too tall, but I found a little kids chair and that was the perfect height for the bucket. With the bucket on the floor there were too many splatters going on; having the bucket higher caught more juice and made less of a mess (but you will still get some splatters). I propped the broom up on the corner of the cupboards so that the bag hung into the bucket on it’s own.

The prickly pear juice doesn’t stain cloth (at least not easy at all…I used a white washcloth to wipe the counter and there’s not a speck of color on it after rinsing it out), but I didn’t know if it would stain wood and didn’t want to find out, so I was careful to quickly wipe up splashes on Mom’s nice hickory cupboard doors and protected the chair with an old towel.

From there I needed all hands on deck and the pictures had to stop, but it’s pretty easy to explain from here. You will want some gloves on (I just used regular cleaning gloves, but you can go thicker if you want). The spines and glochids get soft in the steaming process and most of them don’t make it through the bag, but a few will. The gloves will help protect your fingers from stickers (not 100%, but much better than bare hands). The gloves will also help protect your hands a little from the heat. I wore a pair of gloves and then used another pair out loose as “hot pads”.

Once your gloves are on start twisting the bag slowly and squeeze out the air until you get the bag tight around the pulp. From there then just keep the pillowcase twisted up tight and squeeze that pulp as much as you can. You may have to loosen the pillowcase a little and move the pulp around some here and there. You want to get as much of this pulp juice out as you can as it’s the concentrated good stuff.

And that’s the juicing process! Once I had every single prickly pear juiced I ended up with nearly 5 gallons of juice!! We definitely didn’t need to go pick more fruit.

Having two different varieties of prickly pear fruit was fun to try out. The one has a much deeper and more vivid color, and has a stronger flavor, but the other is more naturally sweet and has a mild flavor. I like both! One isn’t better than the other, just different.

EDITED TO ADD: We don’t know why, but the juice from the cultivated prickly pear went rancid even after canning, and smelled awful. We need to research what to add in to prevent this. But the juice we got from the wild prickly pears we picked from southern AZ was perfectly fine, and this method has always worked for those. Just a heads up in case you have cultivated fruit.

I spent the rest of the evening making 28 half-pint jars of jelly (recipe at the end of this post) before I decided to call it quits for the night and put everything away for the next day. I had one batch set up really good, one batch set up okay, and one batch stayed syrup. Prickly pear jelly seems super temperamental, but luckily if it doesn’t set up the syrup is super yummy anyway!

I’m hitting it again today to make more jelly and to get the remaining jars of juice canned and sealed. It sure is a big job, but having all those finished jars out on the counter sure is satisfying and exciting!

With this much juice to turn into jelly…can you guess what we’re giving out for Christmas this year?!

Prickly Pear Jelly Recipe: 

Ingredients

  • 2 1/2 c. cactus juice
  • 1/2 c. lemon juice
  • 1 pkg pectin (we like Surejell)
  • 4 c. sugar

Directions:

  1. Dissolve the pectin in the lemon juice.
  2. After the pectin is dissolved in lemon juice, stir in the cactus juice.
  3. Bring to a rolling boil.
  4. Add sugar.
  5. When it comes to a rolling boil (stirring occasionally), cook for exactly 3 minutes.
  6. Pour into jars and seal. (You can get sealing instructions here).

This will fill 5 half pint jars. A single batch sets up really well usually. A double batch is iffy. The chemistry gets off when you double this. I need to work on tweaking this and figuring out the correct proportions for a double batch so that this doesn’t have to be made in single batch quantities.

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